Ashley Leisten
Photo credit: Andrew Merz

Before COVID-19 shut down venues, clubs and basically the entire live performance scene, Ashley Leisten – a Texas-born former ballet dancer turned comedian now performing sketch shows and stand-up in Chicago – was diving into the third run of her hilarious production “Boyband: The Musical” at The Annoyance Theatre.

By mid-March, everything had changed. Governor J.B. Pritzker put in place limitations on gatherings, and soon enough the entire state was in lockdown. Rather than retiring to her home to wallow in lost ticket sales, Leisten dove head first into the waters of creativity, and she hasn’t looked back.

“It’s been a super challenging situation, but it’s something that I think has changed the way we communicate as comedians and artists forever,” said Leisten. “Mental health-wise, a lot is so dependent on how often I’m getting to do the things I love, so I’m trying to find every opportunity to do that while I’m unable to do it the way we all really want to, which is in-person with audiences.”

At the beginning of the stay-at-home order, Leisten made the “easy decision” to join fellow Annoyance artists and producers for a 10-day lock-in inside the theatre to create an original show while raising money for staff and comedians to help them stay afloat during this unprecedented time.

“It was a crazy lightening-fast, hyper-condensed sketch revue process, which is something I’ve done several of, but never in that amount of time,” said Leisten, noting that working with director Mick Napier was a very cool opportunity. “The lock-in was so crazy and such a thrilling experience to wake up in a place that you’re unfamiliar with, with people you’re not very familiar with, to work on a show you know you’re going to have to do off book in nine days. That was something that kept us all very motivated at the beginning of all this. I think when we had to leave, we were like, ‘Do we have to? Can’t you just keep us for awhile? Can we please keep making art here?’”

The Annoyance “QuaranTeam” raised approximately $25,000 via the theatre’s GoFundMe. Now at home, Leisten is continuing to collaborate with fellow Chicago comedians on innovative projects and ideas, including a new EP with Andy Rowell.

“We are going back and forth on Garage Band re-layering musical tracks to make this collaborative EP of comedy songs. That’s something that I’m working on right now that I’m pretty excited about,” she said.

When the world gets back to normal and COVID-19 is behind us, Leisten has plans to bring “Boyband: The Musical” back on stage with its original cast, all of whom have been involved with the drag song and dance production since the beginning.

“’Boyband: The Musical’ is about a flashy, over-the-top male toxic ego group and their flight up to utter success and their downfall to desperate failure. It’s a play on every archetype of a man I could think of in my mind,” explained Leisten of the musical that she wrote, choreographed, composed – with a little help from her pianist mother – and directed. “Each character represents a different thing we love to mock about men. The whole ensemble is women wearing wigs, stuffing their pants and really taking it to the nth degree of how inappropriate we can be. They are killing themselves to tell this story that doesn’t matter.”

Leisten can’t wait to reunite with the “Boyband” ensemble and see how this experience influences the collaboration.

“Everyone in the group is dying to get back on stage, put their wigs on and be boys once a week again,” said Leisten. “It’s super rewarding. I feel like I benefit so much as a director seeing it grow over time with the same people. You think when you put it back up it’s going to feel the same, but everyone brings something new to the plate because they are so familiar and so comfortable, they can push that envelope each time. For me as a director, it’s very satisfying to watch.”

Final Five Questions with Ashley Leisten

Ashley Leisten
Photo credit: Forestt S. LaFave

What makes you laugh?

What makes me laugh is watching people shock themselves with how funny they are. When people have a breakthrough without even knowing it and they make themselves laugh, that just kills me. I love watching people bring shock to themselves.

Do you have a favorite joke either that you do or you love from another comedian?

Steven Castillo did a bit – I went to his solo shows when he still lived in Chicago before he started doing “SNL” writing – and he would say these things about how he’s not dating babies. Like how he wished people would stop the rumor that he dates babies.

I remember the first time I saw it, I thought, “That is so stupid. Why have I never written something so genius?”

What establishments or landmarks would you recommend for someone to visit in Chicago?

There are so many things but now I’m like, “Wait, what do I do? Have I ever been anywhere? Where have I been that I loved. Have I ever loved anything?”

OK, I would recommend when the world is back up and running, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” at the Annoyance on Thursday nights is something I do every single week. I don’t miss it. It’s so fun everyone should do it.

I never go get brunch at cute places or do anything like that. I’m so boring.

A general thing people should check out is the hardcore punk scene. It’s incredible here. You could see the dopest bands you’ve ever seen every night of the week. So, if you’re into hardcore punk music and you’re in Chicago, just literally type that in online and you will have the best time. I love hardcore punk music so that’s my, “I’m going out to do something,” thing.

Do you have any comedy recommendations to share with the world?

I love Megan Stalter. I’m a huge Megan Stalter fan and she’s cranking out so much stuff online right now and it’s all hilarious. I highly recommend catching some of her live stuff. She was born to be an internet comedy queen and it so shows during this time. I’m trying to learn from people who are amazing at the internet.

How old am I? Because I feel like I’m 70.

I know “Helltrap Nightmare” is also doing live shows on Twitch, so that’s something that I’ve been trying to tune into because that’s a super awesome and inspiring show.

When things are back up and running, some of my favorite variety shows in the city are Lincoln Lodge – which I think is phenomenal – ChUC and Paper Machete. I would rec those shows very hard. They’re great and run by really awesome producers.

What makes you Rebellious?

What makes me rebellious is that when I’m on stage, I don’t really care what…Wait, let me think about how I want to say this (Laughs). I don’t give a f*ck (sarcastically).

I would say when I’m on stage, that’s my time to say exactly how I feel and it’s my right to let people know what’s going on inside of me. Whether it’s crazy weird or really earnest or super bizarre. So I think I’m rebellious because I never feel apologetic about what comes out of me on stage. It’s my time to give it all I’ve got. Whatever people think about it is totally secondary.

But I’d still love if they like it because that would make me a hire-able comedian (Laughs).

(Photos by Andrew Merz and Forestt S. LaFave courtesy of Ashley Leisten)

Laurie Fanelli is a Chicago-based writer and photographer who specializes in live entertainment coverage. She is at home at major music festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and, of course, Lollapalooza and...